|The events described in this story are fictional. The author makes no assertion about the lives or characters of the real people whose names and identities she has used in the writing of this story, and makes no money from it.|
But there was always that little nagging voice somewhere in a corner of his brain. Analyse it. Go over it again. Trace your steps back until you find the problem. Because, you know, until you find it, you won't be able to do it better.
Oh fuck it. It was probably just his imagination. You know how a bad day can twist things. Everything's ten times worse. The rest of the cast had seemed pretty much the same as always. There was the post-performance buoyancy that was nearly, but not quite, desperation, the exuberant wit and sly put-downs from the usual suspects. You could never really tell with actors. And his day had been seriously bad.
The car turned a corner and he ran his tongue over his teeth, feeling for the slight ache he'd tried not to notice earlier. He probably shouldn't have eaten the Mars bar. No, he definitely shouldn't have eaten the Mars bar, but some fan had thrust it into his hand the previous night ('Hey - a Mars bar! Er, thanks very much') and well... it was just sitting there, in his dressing room...
Yeah, a day of giving in to weaknesses, he thought, the corners of his mouth turning up slightly in a grim parody of a smile. A day of doing stuff he really shouldn't, and getting things wrong. Ah, come on, it was just a Mars bar! Hardly tabloid revelation time, was it?
He had the beginnings of a headache as well. He was about to close his eyes, which felt hot and somehow too big for his skull, but then remembered he was driving, and changed his mind. He'd sat in that dressing room for a long time tonight, wanting to leave, have a drink somewhere, go home, whatever... but stuck, somehow, where he was. Fiddling around on his laptop - stupid stuff, not even funny. He'd clicked on Save, but knew he was going to delete the lot next time he turned on the machine. He'd only put the thing away when he realised he'd spent the last fifteen minutes messing around with the settings on the screensaver.
He was never sure what kept him there, on those nights when he sat alone in the theatre, after the rest of the cast had left; gone home to the family, gone to the bar, the club, the party. Most of the time he did the same, followed the buzz and the bright lights in search of alcohol and noise and Fun. But then there were nights, like tonight, when he found himself alone in a small room, tapping odd bits of crap into his laptop, planning grand schemes and then erasing them again, fixing his computer so that rude words scrolled randomly across the screen...
He'd got up eventually, packed the laptop away, made his way to the stage door. Oh yeah. The fans. It was the one thing he'd never quite got used to: you took your last bow, made your last exit, and that was it, or should be, shouldn't it? The applause died away behind you, and ahead there was all this light and all these people who were like your temporary family, who were part of this thing too, and on a good night they'd grin, relieved, exploding with praise and enthusiasm for you and each other. You'd done it, we'd done it, and we were fucking great, weren't we? Brilliant. Marvellous. On a dodgy night, of course, you'd still get all that. It would just be a lot less convincing.
Yeah. And that was it. The End, until tomorrow. Except it wasn't. Because then there were The Fans... Another entrance to make. Another performance to be got through before he could exit, Stage Left, doing his best to keep to the speed limit. Most nights, he felt, his performance was probably pretty fucking awful.
He stopped at a zebra crossing and watched as a tiny old lady, wearing what looked suspiciously like a pair of curtains, pushed a supermarket trolley with a quite impressive lack of speed across the road. The trolley was filled with what looked like plastic carrier bags and anonymous, lumpy bundles wrapped in God-knew-what. A package balancing precariously at the front of the trolley suddenly moved, and revealed itself to be a large, slightly moth-eaten tabby cat.
He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel, half frustrated at the interruption of his journey, half fascinated by the strange apparition before him. Just another of London's lost souls She was still only a quarter of the way across the road, and cars were beginning to queue up in his wake.
"Fuck's sake..." he sighed under his breath, exasperated and scrabbling instinctively with his left hand toward the jacket pocket and the Marlboro Lights. He wondered whether he should just get out and push the bloody thing across for her.
As if she'd heard his thoughts, the old woman suddenly stopped in front of his car, turned her head and peered in through the windscreen, staring straight into his eyes. Astonished, he had no choice but to stare right back. Then, somewhat to his amazement, she drew down one eyelid in a wink, and gave him what looked disturbingly like a knowing leer, before setting off again with her bizarre vehicle. Well, he thought, as she finally reached the pavement and he began to accelerate. He supposed it might have been an apologetic grin gone horribly wrong. But he doubted it.
Maybe she recognized him. Maybe she was a fan. Yeah, right! An obvious theatre-goer, that one. A definite consumer of contemporary film and comedy, for sure. There goes that big fuck-off ego again... But it was weird, all the same. He laughed out loud. Life was weird. People were weird. Everything was fucking weird! That was why he liked it.
Those fans... Oh yeah, it always came back to the fans, in the end, as much as he'd like to deny it. Because they were always there. He'd found he didn't really think about them too much. When things were going well, it was fine. A laugh, sometimes. He liked it when they were funny and easy with him, and he could be funny and easy back. He liked a chat. He liked people, he really did. And they were just people, after all. They had their own lives, their own stuff going on, whatever... He liked it when he could be him, or at least that particular version of himself he liked best: sparring amiably, taking a conversation and letting it spin itself out to some improbable conclusion. He liked the look on people's faces when he threw another verbal spanner in the works, wrong-footing them suddenly, to their delighted confusion. He could enjoy it; it felt like fun.
Not tonight, though. He'd known, as soon as he stepped outside to a barrage of camera clicks, that this wasn't one of those nights. His eyes were sore, his throat was dry, he should stop smoking, he'd had a bad day, he was forty, and how could he have thought, only yesterday, that that didn't scare him? He didn't want to be here, he didn't want to do this shit. He'd do it, though. Oh, yeah, he'd do it. He was a professional. He always did it. Well ... nearly always. But that didn't mean he had to enjoy it.
He hadn't really looked at them, he'd looked mainly at the pens, taken them, signed, handed them back. Thanked people who told him he was great. Yeah, whatever. Smiled without enthusiasm into the camera. A bright, overexcited voice had piped up:
"Could you sign it to me, and can you write--"
"No, I don't do that." He'd known he was on the edge of rudeness even as he opened his mouth.
"Sorry." Sign, smile, move on. He wasn't going to feel guilty. He wasn't going to feel anything at all, if he could help it. Not just at the moment, thanks. A couple more, and he'd call it a day. Sign, smile and move on. It was strange. If it weren't for the disturbingly effective force-field of optimism, emotional reserve, and sheer bloody-minded willpower that he'd spent the last thirty-four odd years building around himself, he might have felt a strong urge to cry. Bloody hell, don't start thinking like that. Get a grip, for God's sake.
Ok, that was it. Enough. He was as good as gone. Issuing a few cursory words of farewell, he'd turned in the direction of the car, and freedom. And for maybe the first time since he'd stepped out through the doorway, he'd accidentally caught someone's eye. A pretty, smiling woman, maybe mid-thirties; short blonde hair. American, he'd decided for some reason. She'd held up her unsigned programme in mock-salute and given him a small, resigned shrug. Turning to her friends, she'd laughed a little in a "Yeah, well, I didn't really expect anything," kind of way.
And she really didn't, he'd thought. Expect anything. For some reason that had bothered him. Why didn't she? Maybe she should expect things. From life. From other people. From herself. Maybe we all should Ah, just leave. You've virtually left anyway. Don't question it. Be grateful for one less hassle you don't have to deal with.
But he'd found himself turning again, retracing his steps, taking the pen.
"Ok, who do I sign it to?" To his surprise, he'd felt a small but genuine smile begin to assert itself on his face, half against his wishes. He wondered why that smile always seemed to take him by surprise. He went with it.
"Oh, right. Sure. I mean, thanks. Ummm " The woman appeared to be having trouble remembering her name, for some reason. Luckily her friends were there to remind her. She laughed, a little embarrassed.
"You were really great, by the way."
Ok. He was really great. That smile was still there. He looked at her, wondering briefly what her life was like, where she was from. Her accent told him he'd been right; she was American. What was she doing here? On holiday, probably. He wondered idly what her life was like, how she filled her days, whether she was in love. Did she have kids? Was she happy?
For some reason, he felt like extending the encounter. The change of mood was so unexpected; it was as though the sun had suddenly come out. Yeah, well. Life was weird like that.
"Hey, cool nails," he said, handing the pen back. He was feeling positively flirty now. "Great colour!"
"Oh, thank you!" She paused, obviously wondering whether she dared continue. One of the friends, a small, dark-haired woman, grinned affectionately and threw an arm across her shoulders.
"Yeah, this is the Goddess of Hairdos and Nail Varnish." English accent, he observed.
"Oh, shuddup!" The first was blushing, obviously delighted. "Ok, I love getting my hair and nails done." She turned to him and flashed a warm smile in his face. "Come on, don't you?"
He laughed, suddenly light-hearted. He wasn't sure why. He was still tired and pissed off with himself. But there was something here he liked. He felt brighter. There was a spark of something in this woman and her small group that he warmed to; a certain closeness, a sense of fun and a generosity of spirit in the way they were with one another. He found it infectious, despite himself. People could be ok.
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah, I really do."
It was beginning to rain, as the car finally turned into his street. The wind was getting up, and he noticed that a plastic bag had blown up into a tree, and got stuck on a branch. It fluttered there like a banner, lit by the streetlight, declaring to the world that Sainsbury's made life taste better. Whatever. He breathed out slowly as the wipers started, smearing the drops in a wide arc over the windscreen. Yeah. It had been a shitty night on the whole. A shitty night and a shitty, shitty day. Get over it. It happens. Life is weird. So get up tomorrow and do it all again. Better.
In the garage, he sat for a while in the driver's seat, staring into the gloomy interior until his eyes adjusted to the darkness, and he found that small, surprising grin attempting to spread itself across his face again. He was lost in a trance, his mind doing its usual weird thing, thoughts spiralling tiredly out of his grasp. He shifted in the seat, trying to shrug himself back down to earth, and made a valiant attempt to think in a rational way about the next day, visualising the diary page in his head. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow Always good for a one-liner, that Shakespeare. Bit repetitive, though. Another day, another euro He smirked. Didn't have quite the same ring to it, somehow. Shame. Yeah, another day of running around doing this and that, work, ciggies, coffee, talking bollocks. The usual. Well the unusual usual.
He realised he was
looking forward to it. Yeah. Tomorrow had a good chance of being pretty